Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper really is dangerous

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It has become increasingly clear that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament in December was a serious miscalculation. The public, perhaps not normally attuned to such things, has clearly understood that Harper's decision smells: It smells of the all-consuming political calculations that are a 24-hour-a-day preoccupation with Harper; it smells of an attempt to shut Parliament down at a time when opposition MPs are asking embarrassing but legitimate questions of the government on several fronts; and it smells of a contempt for Parliament and public accountability that, ironically, helped bring the old Reform party into existence -- the same Reform party, need it be added, that first brought Harper to Ottawa.

Harper has offered a series of justifications for closing down Parliament.

First, it was to allow the country to focus on the Vancouver Olympics, a fatuous suggestion if ever there was one. Then Harper rationalized prorogation as providing the government the time to recalibrate its programs and policies. Taken seriously, this would suggest that Harper's government cannot govern and recalibrate -- whatever that may mean -- at the same time.

As demonstrations against the government have occurred across the country, and as the Conservatives' standing in the polls slid dangerously close to the Liberals', a new explanation and justification has been floated. Last week, Harper's office sent a memorandum to all its parliamentary supporters listing all the wonderful things that ministers, Conservative MPs and senators are doing -- and, by implication, able to do -- because Parliament is not sitting.

Essentially, Harper is suggesting that government gets better the less Parliament does.

That argument has been made explicit by no less an authority than one of Harper's senior pit bulls, Jason Kenney, who last week commented, "As a minister, I often get more done when the House is not in session. That's not to say Parliament is unimportant, but from a ministerial point of view, I think any minister in any government will tell you that's probably generally the case."

Could the message be any clearer? Presumably with no Parliament at all, the Conservatives could do one hell of a job.

This is an extraordinarily pernicious doctrine. In fact, to call it a doctrine is to dignify it: It is pernicious nonsense. From a party that has made a fetish of wanting less government and more accountability, this confounds the convictions they have always professed to have. The truth, obviously, is that they love power and unchecked power especially. Little wonder that poll after poll suggests that a large majority of Canadians want Parliament sitting because, for all its imperfections, it is the only way in which a government -- this government -- can be held accountable on a day-to-day basis.

In any survey of modern history, one everywhere observes -- all round the world -- that when elected, democratic governments are overthrown one of the first acts of autocrats and usurpers is to close down the assemblies, parliaments or congresses and to dismiss them as inefficient or ineffective talking shops.

Elected bodies can be such things but that is not why would-be dictators close them down: They close them down because they rightly distrust democracy as slow, cumbersome, inefficient and inimical to autocratic minds and methods.

Despite his frequently made claims to being an economist, Harper has always lived on the avails of politics and is an archetypal professional politician who has had no significant career outside politics and, within which has been narrowly focused on ideology, strategy and tactics. Coming, as he does, from the one-party state of Alberta he has never shown any sensitivity to nor understanding of a parliamentary system whose functioning depends on recognizing the legitimacy of opposition, the existence of constitutional conventions and limits, or that there are lines that governments may not cross.

He demonstrated this ignorance a year ago in precipitating a crisis that almost brought him down, and he is demonstrating it again now over prorogation. He combines the stubbornness of the control freak with the ignorance of the know-it-all. Harper, in a sense that his sternest critics may never have imagined, is a dangerous man.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2010 A13

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